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CD Reviews - May 2008
by Don Campbell

(Previous CD Reviews are available at the CD Archives page. )

Avatar, Gonzalo Rubalcalba.
   Cuban-born pianist Rubalcalba is a fearless and fearsome pianist. He has a muscular way of plowing into the most obtuse and complex rhythm structures and chord patterns and emerging victorious and triumphant on the other side. This seven-song CD requires some rapt attention and a strong heart, but the listener is rewarded with some deeply exploratory jazz, steeped in the heart of Cuban music. Produced by Rubalcalba, the band features a quartet of Yosvanuj Terry on sax, Mike Rodriguez on trumpet and flugelhorn, Matt Brewer on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums. They are a formidable rhythm section and deft at a special kind of polyrhythmic telepathy. Their precise telemetric execution for implying a groove while dancing around it is impeccable. And the grooves and arrangements that composers Rubalcalba, Terry and Brewer contribute here are monstrous. Terry’s alto sax playing is nothing if not exhaustingly thorough in his melodic and harmonic explorations on each song. The band sets up impossible heads, and each player gets ample room to roam.
   The material for the most part is edgy and dark, and not immediately or necessarily accessible to a casual listen. However, commit the ears and the modal lushness will surprise. On Brewer’s “Aspiring to Normalcy,” Rubalcalba establishes a black underlying arpeggio form, with Terry and Rodriguez laying down a melody that sounds like what you’d hear if insomnia had a melody. Rodriguez solos first, with staccato punch, followed by Brewer’s sinewy bass over Gilmore’s stellar brush and cymbal strokes. This is dense, intrepid music.
   2008, Blue Note/EMI

Rabo de Nube, Charles Lloyd Quartet.
   If you’ve not explored the work of Charles Lloyd, this may not be the place to start. Recorded live in Switzerland to celebrate Lloyd’s 70th birthday, Rabo de Nube, like Avatar, will require some auditory discipline. But those who know Lloyd will revel not only in his compositional skills and reed work (plus alto flute and tarogato, a single-reed Hungarian woodwind featured on “Rumanujan”), but the young lions he’s surrounded himself with. Lloyd has always had great pianists -- Jarrett, Zawinul, Petrucciani and Mehldau – and this recording is no exception. Blue Note’s Jason Moran plays with a barely contained enthusiasm. It’s sharp, eloquent, informed and bursting with melodic invention and a universe of astounding technique (especially on “La Coline da Monk”). Lloyd opens the recording with the haunting “Prometheus.” Propulsive drumming from Eric Harland and the insistent bass of Reuben Rogers (who bows and double-stops as melodically as I’ve heard) push Moran’s chordal expressions, and the sum is the force of nature under Lloyd’s tenor. The song’s head is quick and transitory, almost like the quick pass of a baton in a 4x400 relay. That force is carried through the entire project. It smolders, smokes and erupts in huge flames in surprising cycles on nearly every composition. Lloyd seems to take delight in letting each player find every subtle harmonic nuance.
   2008, ECM
Oasis Pere Soto (with David Valdez) – (Diatic Records)
   Guitarist Pere Soto teams up with saxman David Valdez on this 11-song project for a sweetly and lightly arranged Andalusian spin. Released on Portland, Oregon’s Diatic Records, Soto and Valdez open the recording with two Soto-penned tunes, “Armonica” and “Sheila” that feature the gilding of harmonica ace Damien Mastersen. Both are fresh and lilting Spanish themes.
Soto’s guitar is understated throughout, while Valdez’s sax, in all its breathy, reedy wonder, permeates. On Gordon Jenkins’ “Goodbye,” Valdez cops the strong melody at the top of the piece and then floats a lengthy but picturesque solo to the end, buoyed by Portlander Randy Porter’s deft piano.
   Soto’s biggest contribution here may be his compositional and arranging skills. He’s credited with “virtual B3 programming” which, in the case of the Soto tune “Indian,” may be a hair heavy-handed, along with the persistent tom-tom thud of Salvador Toscano (and that’s not necessarily a slam on Toscano).
   Soto’s playful “Incognito” features the chunk of his Flamenco-flourished nylon-string guitar. His Gypsy style is a welcome counterpoint to Valdez’s sax, reinforcing the Spanish sound. His chops deep dive to the heart of the melody with fire, before the sax returns to reprise the melody.
   There are a few left turns, like the wah-wah guitar-driven “If I Knew Where You Were” and the throw-away pop of “Point of Truth,” but Soto delivers on the tasty title ballad “Oasis,” “Bon Viatje,” the Brazilian street parade of “Mr. 88,” and “When I Come Home.”

Sound Architecture, Tim Willcox Quartet.
   Eugene-born saxophonist Tim Willcox made his way to music school back east and gigs in New York City before relocating to Portland in 2002. On his debut Diatic Records project he teamed up with Toby Koenigsberg on piano, bassist Chris Higgins and Randy Rollofson on drums. Sonically the CD – or maybe the room in which it was recorded –  is a bit flat even for a minimalist quartet recording, but the performances definitely shine. This is fairly straight ahead playing, but for an inaugural project, it shows a strong up-and-comer. All nine songs were composed by Willcox. “P. Dub” is driven by Higgins’ tough walking bass line, Rollofson’s nearly overpowering drums, and tasty soloing from Koenigsberg and Willcox. “Have A Heart” is a sweet ballad that mixes time signatures to good result (which he does throughout the project), held together by an inventive Willcox melody line. There’s a certain pop feel to this record, and Willcox admits his influences include everyone from Ravel to Elvis Costello to Bjork and the Replacements. Expect more great stuff from him.
   2008, Diatic Records.

Thoughts Take Flight: a love and stress compound, Dusty York Trio.
   Tenor saxophonist Dusty York is one of the more creative forces to emerge in jazz, especially locally. The Portlander, son of saxophonist Michael York, dismissed the rule book in favor of exuberant expression on his third recording. He’ll flirt with a melodic exercise, then launch himself, pitching and yawing his way through some soaring sonic recreation. The stripped down trio sound is a good vehicle for York. His tone is at once nostalgic and modern, with the same feel coming from Russ Kleiner’s drums. Bassist Justin Durrie has his hands full on the acoustic bass, displaying deft technique and lovely deep woody sound. With no piano as emulsifier, the record has a wild, freeform appeal. Again, York will tease with a melody line before jetting off on a bender of tonal exploration.
   York opens with “Prelude – Purgatory to Paradise,” which begins in a slow 4/4 march with a plucked double-stop figure from Durrie before York enters with an antique sax line and Kleiner playing a shaker. It devolves (or maybe transcends) into an avant garde miasma of cacophony before it literally runs out of steam (and you actually hear York’s last breath through his horn). “A Sick Man’s Dream” kicks off with a tight unison figure between Durrie and York that’s at once playful and a tad foreboding, then slips back and forth from a more freeform ramble to York soloing over the opening line. “Interlude I – love and stress compounded” opens with a few bars of breath through a horn, over a fade-in of Durrie’s bowed bass, who then exercises his way up and down the neck in odd intervals. York slides in with his tenor over Kleiner’s drippy rain stick. It’s all slightly uncomfortable in that it evokes the stress foretold in the title. Edgy stuff, and probably not for everybody, but for jazz adventurers, this CD is a fun ride.
    2008, Diatic Records.

Otis Stomp, Andrew Oliver Sextet.
   A student of Randy Porter, Andrew Oliver is a post-bop composer of considerable talent. He leads a young-lion sextet that includes Mary Sue Tobin on alto and soprano saxes, Willie Matheis on tenor, Dan Duval on guitar (and composer of two cuts), Eric Gruber on bass and Kevin Van Geem on drums. The title is a paean of sorts to the coastal Otis Café, and this powerful unit covers eight Oliver compositions, two by Duval and a traditional cut, with remarkable style. On the title cut, it’s a classic sextet sound with tight arranging and stellar soloing throughout, very old school. Oliver’s “How the Moon Broke” is a Coltrane-style ballad in an inventive mode established early by Duval’s electric guitar. “Bam! Made In France” features watertight ensemble playing in 7/4, with a ridiculously fun and outside solo from Duval. Throughout, each musician’s contribution helps create a sum bigger than its individual parts. Gruber and Van Geem are the strong spine for this group (and Van Geem’s drums and/or the room are tuned to perfection for this recording – the right amounts of kick-drum ambient boom, snappy snare and crisp cymbals). Tobin and Matheis are truly inventive as soloists, and can cop a mean melody in the arranged sections. This record is a delight, the playing outstanding, and the fact these guys are young doesn’t hurt either. They tip the hat to the masters, yet never play it safe. They’ve gone to school, but still bring something new to the party. These kids are dangerous. I can’t wait to see what they do next. 
   A quick word about Diatic Records. They not only produce standard CDs, but also release enhanced data CDs replete with video cuts, liner notes and covers, photos and song tracks, all in a “green” package. www.diaticrecords.com.
   2008, Diatic Records.

Live. Brad Mehldau Trio.
   Piano-based trio jazz is such comfort food. Brad Mehldau leads his trio through a two-CD set that captures the group at the Village Vanguard in late 2006. This is intimate stuff, done with grace and precision. It’s redolent of every basement jazz club you’ve ever found yourself in, lending to the intimacy of every cut. It’s tight and closed in and slightly claustrophobic, like you could reach up and touch the plumbing in the ceiling, or reach out and touch the piano. The recordings capture every subtlety of Mehldau and longtime cohorts Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard. This is smoky stuff.
   On “Ruby’s Rub,” Grenadier and Ballard flex some powerful muscle without ever over-bearing their weight. Mehldau comps big left-hand chords and slices through his solo like a knife-thrower – unerring accuracy and on target. I’d love to inhabit the mind of a jazz pianist like Mehldau for just one song, to wrap an emotion around that dexterity and let fingers fly. Mehldau tenderly serves up Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” as a smoldering ballad, paradoxical as that sounds, proving that a good song is a good song is a good song. This patient and sultry treatment might help make this a jazz standard, as opposed to a goofy one-off. Bassist Grenadier takes the melody after one pass, and hearing it in the basement like that, with Mehldau comping chordal inversions, somehow works. Mehldau comes to Eugene on June 5, at the Shedd.
   2008, Nonesuch.

Mi Sueno, Ibrahim Ferrer.
   Just had to pay tribute to one of Cuba’s finest singers, Ibrahim Ferrer. Ferrer, a singer of grace and passion, delivers 12 songs of beauty, melancholy and sweet ardor. This project focused on the bolero, those slower-tempo songs of romance, and Ferrer wraps heart and soul around each. Ferrer, of course, found new life with Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club (and Wim Wender’s documentary film). He was coaxed out of musical retirement for that project – he’d retired from music in the early ‘90s, and subsisted on a tiny government pension and what he earned shining shoes. He went on to tour, record and earn several Grammys.
   Ferrer’s unique phrasing and vocal style are splendid. One listen to “Uno,” and understands how completely Ferrer wraps himself around a song. A deceptively simple melody becomes something deeper and more complex. Tears are almost guaranteed on “Convergencia,” a minor-key ballad that finds him squeezing every ounce of passion out of each note. His slow, warbling vibrato aches with emotion. He is joined by Buena Vista bandmates Ruben Gonzalez (piano) and Omara Portuondo (who does an incredible vocal duet with Ferrer on “Quizas, Quizas”) on one cut each, and he used the huge talents of Roberto Fonseca on piano, Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez on acoustic bass, Manuel Balgan on guitar, and Ramses Rodrigues and Emilio del Monte on percussion.
   Ferrer’s dream was this album, dedicated solely to the bolero. He died halfway through the recording in 2005, and some of the ensemble arrangements were added posthumously, but unless one knew, one would never know. The real star is Ferrer’s voice, plaintive, sweet and fragile, much like the love about which he sings.
   2007, Nonesuch.

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